Ken Zeff is turning the paradigm of the modern coffee shop on its head. And it’s working.
While so many other coffee houses — including behemoth Starbucks — are focusing on drive-throughs, mobile ordering and other strategies to speed up the delivery of a cup of joe, Zeff’s Crazy Mocha is deliberately defying that model.
“Both drive-throughs and mobile ordering, I think, take the purpose out of the coffee business,” said Zeff, whose coffee empire has grown from a single shop in Shadyside in 2000, to 30 locations mostly throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. “The coffee business is intended to be that place where you can go hang out and relax. So, when you place your coffee order online and you have to fight through all these drinks there with stickers on them, it sort of eliminates that human contact that I think originally was the purpose of the coffee shop. You know, just come in, relax, talk to the barista, meet a friend here and not be in a hurry.”
The shops in the Crazy Mocha chain, which Zeff owns along with his wife, Michelle, have an intentionally welcoming vibe: the chairs are comfortable, the tables are large, and because not much space is devoted to other retail products and advertising, there is more room to just hang out.
“Our goal is to not do mobile ordering and not to do drive-throughs,” Zeff said, “but to maintain locations that can be the rock in the neighborhood, that are dependable, that stay open later than a Starbucks. We have no music nights, or open mic nights, so when people want to come and chill out and enjoy, they know that it’s going to be the same 365 days a year. It’s an alternative.”
Zeff is constantly expanding his business, with construction already begun at his newest venture in Braddock, a few miles east of Pittsburgh.
That location may be surprising to some, as Braddock has been a state-designated “financially distressed municipality” for more than a quarter century. Once a thriving industrial town and the home of Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Braddock fell apart during the 1970s and 1980s with the collapse of the steel industry. The town’s mayor, John Fetterman, has been working since 2005 to turn things around in Braddock, helping to bring in new businesses and supporting a proposed medical marijuana facility in the community to bring in more jobs.
Zeff’s eye for up-and-coming neighborhoods may bode well for Braddock.
“We love going into neighborhoods that are transitioning, and we’ve done it before,” Zeff said. “Real estate is a little more realistic and we love to be part of that tipping point.”
The Zeffs have set up shops on the North Side, in Lawrenceville “before Lawrenceville happened,” and in Market Square when most every other store sat vacant.
“We identified Downtown as an opportunity before Downtown started to happen,” Zeff said. “We have 12 stores down there right now.”
But Zeff, a native Pittsburgher, sees his new store in Braddock as more than just an opportunity.
He looks back fondly on his childhood days visiting B. Zeff, the scrap business owned by his father, a Braddock native. B. Zeff was an institution in Braddock from 1902 until the 1990s, until the business ran out of family members interested in running it.
He is looking forward to returning to that town with his coffee shop, with the new facility there also housing a prep kitchen that will make sandwiches for all the Crazy Mocha stores, helping to create additional jobs in Braddock.
The Zeffs, who are both native Pittsburghers and who live in Squirrel Hill, make it a point to support their neighbors. The Crazy Mocha on Murray Avenue offers a selection of certified kosher products, including some pretty decadent looking cakes, catering to a customer crowd that includes Orthodox Jews. They are also big supporters of The Friendship Circle, located just up the road, and frequently host events and donate gift cards and products to that organization, which works to integrate children and young adults with special needs more fully into the broader community.
Despite the fact that so much of Zeff’s life is about coffee, he admits that he has never even tasted it.
“I’ve never tried coffee, or tea, or hot chocolate,” he said. “It’s an undiagnosed problem. I really don’t try anything new; I have no interest in it.”
Still, he is fueled by the fact that his Crazy Mochas provide a warm spot for the community to get something tasty, relax and connect.
“It’s a happy place to go,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.